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July 8, 2002

Faith Of Our Fathers

When it comes to young evangelicals it turns out that reports of the demise of their faith may have been greatly exaggerated. So say Calvin professors James Penning and Corwin Smidt.

The duo has a book due this summer called Evangelicalism: The Next Generation," written in answer to questions posed by a groundbreaking and widely cited 1987 book by James D. Hunter called "Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation."

Hunter's book was troubling to many in the evangelical world, suggesting that students attending evangelical colleges were becoming increasingly secularized and abandoning their orthodox faith commitment. In other words the colleges were doing the opposite of their intent. Hunter's assertion was that this was both a natural product of growing secularization that resulted from increased cultural pluralism and higher education (which usually weakens, he said, the grip of religious conviction on a person's life). According to Hunter there was nothing distinctive about Christian higher education that would make it different in this regard from other kinds of higher education and his book suggested that this growth in secularization among vangelical college students would continue.

James Penning and Corwin Smidt had an article recently in Books & Culture that included summaries of their findings, results from their survey and more. It's available on-line and gives a good taste of what Evangelicalism: The Next Generation is all about. Click here for more.

Penning and Smidt, long-time colleagues in Calvin's political science department, decided to revisit the territory of Hunter's book. They knew from the start that Hunter's work had shortcomings. But they also knew that, despite those shortcomings, his study is one of the few in-depth analyses of students attending evangelical colleges.

"It remains," says Smidt, "an important study worthy of attention."

Penning and Smidt arranged to survey students at the same nine colleges (Bethel, George Fox, Gordon, Houghton, Messiah, Seattle Pacific, Taylor, Westmont and Wheaton) as Hunter had done and, in fact, basically replicated Hunter's 1982 survey instrument. They sent 5,000 surveys and received about 2,500 back. They also compared the attitudes of the college students with adult evangelicals, using existing databases from a variety of surveys. This allowed them to compare today's students with not only the students from Hunter's 1982 survey, but also with adults both in the past and today.

The survey looked at student attitudes in four main areas: theology, politics, social theology (the role of the church in the world) and moral boundaries. Penning and Smidt found that today's students are not less orthodox in their religious beliefs. Nor have they abandoned their faith commitment as Hunter had said was likely to happen. Instead today's students score similar to their counterparts of the early 1980s and in some cases are more orthodox or traditional than students in the 1980s. Today's students also tend to be highly observant in terms of religious practices: things such as prayer, church attendance and daily Bible reading.

Says Penning: "Our study shows that there has not been an erosion of religious
orthodoxy at these nine colleges. There has been more continuity than change. In fact, there seems to be a move toward more conservative positions in some areas."

The bottom line say the two political scientists is that Hunter's "dire prognosis" for the future of the evangelical movement was not warranted. And, they add, contrary to Hunter's original assertion, evangelical colleges, and higher education, did not erode religious conviction. Their survey shows, in fact, that education strengthens religious belief.

"This is an important finding," says Penning. "Christian colleges in particular were very hard hit by (Hunter's) book."

Penning and Smidt's new book is scheduled to be released in July 2002 from Baker Book House. They will speak on the book and the survey at Calvin on September 25 at 3:30 p.m. in the Meeter Center Lecture Hall.

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Contact Phil de Haan
616-957-6475 (v)
616-957-7069 (f)